BACKYARDS AND ROOMS

FIELDS OF PLAY: BACKYARDS AND ROOM

 

As an eleven year old child I was most happy while deeply engaged in delightful moments of outdoor play. Mainly I organized those moments around various ways to explore balls and bicycles, although any sport or game captured my attention. Any outdoor (and even indoor) environment contained the potential for a ball game. I scoped the possibilities wherever I happened to be. 

I will explore the full range and variability of these games, organizing my memories according to places (or fields) of play, noting the cognitive and ecological significance in each venue. There were games of city, town, house, room, attic, backyard, neighborhood, schoolyard, park, and trail. Cross this geographic and spatial scheme with games that ranged from wildly improvisational to rules-based order, or from physical to cerebral, and you have a three fold axis of possibility.

House and neighborhood were the safest places to play. They provided a regularity of seasonal variety, a stable group of players, and a secure, bounded field. The exterior of our suburban house could serve as right field wall, basketball backboard, and provided the means and backdrop for any game that allowed us to throw a ball against a solid surface. Our yard was small and contained, big enough to have a catch, or to play wiffle ball, but not really large enough for more than two kids to run around in. We could play one on one wiffle ball (a game I continued to play well into my teenage years), one on one basketball (although there was barely any lateral flexibility), one on one tackle football, and a variety of solo games including stoop ball (throw a tennis ball off a stoop), roof ball (throw a ball onto the roof and catch it as it falls), and other games for sidewalks and driveways.

Our father suggested some of these games, always happy to share his own street ball memories from Brooklyn. Sometimes his memories would spark an idea for us, but we were much less interested in his games and mainly wanted to devise our own. Indeed my brother and I invented different solo games for our own purposes. We had different versions of stoopball. However, we would find ways to invoke common rules when we managed to play together. 

There were all kinds of neighborhood street games. We played them on a nearby dead-end “court” road, a three minute stroll from the house. We had a terrific four on four softball game, highlighted by self-service batting, a neatly laid out stadium, with appropriately scaled distances proportioned for doubles, triples, and home runs. I’m not sure how we invented these games. The first time we’d play we’d figure out some rules. If the game was fun and we could attract a regular group of players, we’d continue to play it, make up some more rules, and somehow we’d have a consensually derived tradition of play. 

Each room in our house presented a different rule-making challenge. My small room had a desk and drawer alignment that was symmetrical enough to resemble a baseball stadium. I invented “card baseball.” I organized an arrangement of baseball cards on the floor according to players positions on the field. The batting team used a baseball card as a bat. I would toss a small piece of rolled up cardboard, made with paper and spit, hit the little cardboard ball with the baseball card, and depending on where the ball landed, there were a series of rules allowing the cards on the field to retrieve it, while the batting card ran the bases. It was a decent game, but much more fun in its conception than execution, as I spent far too much time crawling around the floor. 

Far better was block baseball, a game we played in our “finished” attic. I would build a stadium with blocks and use smaller blocks to represent the players on the field. In this two player game, the pitcher rolled a marble. The batter hit the marble with a pencil and if the marble hit one of the player blocks on the field the batter was out. Block baseball could get very raucous and it was also more interesting in theory then practice. It was great fun to build the stadiums and even more fun to destroy them. 

My brother (Peter) and I also played hockey in the attic. We set up two chairs about thirty feet apart in a room of 30x15 dimensions. We had “real” hockey sticks that we used to knock around a tennis ball with the object of knocking the ball between the legs of the chair. This was a great game as we bounced the balls and each other off the attic walls.

Peter perfected “door basketball.” You would shoot a tennis ball at the molding on top of the door and score a basket if the ball caught the angle of the molding. We played this competitively, but mainly this was a game that my brother engaged in. He invented elaborate fantasy players on teams that combined real basketball stars with both real and imaginary friends. I preferred to stack chairs in our “den,” leaning them against the brick wall of a fireplace, stick a garbage pail on top, and shoot the tennis ball into the pail. The trick was to place the pail high enough that the game was a challenge, but not so high that it was too hard to retrieve the ball. I would play this in Saturday afternoon while watching the NBA game of the week (early 1960’s). This was when the game of the week was a big deal as television coverage of professional sports was much more limited than it is today.

I spent thousands of hours playing more cerebral board games both of the commercial variety and games of my own design. I invented dice baseball games that I played with my baseball cards. I ran countless tournaments and leagues while keeping notebooks of statistics and standings. My cousin Byron and I played a commercial game called Red Barber baseball. It was a game of pure luck but we invented variants that allowed it to more realistically reflect major league performances. We each kept our own notebooks of statistics and after a month or so we would exchange them and continue with each others leagues. Of course we had the most fun when we got to play these games together.

I invented numerous versions of dice baseball, dice basketball, dice football, and dice hockey, games of pure luck that somehow seemed skillful. For some of these games I would regularly write down the results. Other times I would keep it all in my head. As a result, I became so adept with numbers that I could go to the supermarket and tell my mother the total cost of her shopping more quickly than the cashier could ring it up on the cash register.

In my teenage years when I discovered the Strat-O-Matic series of games, I was absolutely overjoyed that there were games of so much realism in which players would perform so accurately. Yet the dice assured enough mystery and randomness to keep these games interesting, thus fueling my imagination about the seemingly unlimited ways the games could unfold. 

 

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Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.